Not of the Dead

(A sermon for Pentecost 24C/All Saints     November 7, 2010      Luke 20:27-38)

I’m standing in the dry cleaners, and I see the women in front of me greet each other. The older woman calls the younger woman by the wrong name, Rose instead of Marie. Marie assures her that it’s not a problem, though I’m sure it makes her wince a little, because Rose was her mother, and her mother died very recently. They go on to talk about Rose, how Marie has taken her old phone number, and how far it went back in their family history – to Federal Street, she says, perhaps the scene of her childhood. The friend makes the claim of faith that Rose is now in a better place, and Marie agrees, saying, “She couldn’t wait to be with my father again. She missed him so much.” The friend, nodding, assures her, “Now they are together.”

We like to think humanity has progressed through the millennia, but in truth we are asking the same questions and dreaming the same dreams as our remote ancestors. We write books and make movies that present images of heaven, the death experience and the afterlife.  We want to know what will happen when we die—or more particularly when our loved ones die—and we want to know if we will see them again. We’re seeking the comfort of certain knowledge, even though we know we can’t really have it. 

“Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive." (Luke 20:38, Revised Songbird Version)

What did the Sadducees really want to hear from Jesus? 

The Sadducees were a conservative group among the Jews, probably descended from the famous priest, Zadok. They disagreed with the Pharisees on many issues, including which books of scripture counted. The Sadducees gave credence only to the first five books of our Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  And in those books, they found nothing to support the idea of a general resurrection of souls at some future date in time. Dead was dead to the Sadducees. 

So they weren’t really looking for an answer to the word problem they posed to Jesus, didn’t really want to know whether if one husband left earth on such a date and the next one on such another date and so forth, who would own the bride in the end? No, they would have found the whole premise nonsensical. But they were worried about who Jesus was, and what he was up to in Jerusalem, and how his activity might upset the Romans who occupied the area. The Sadducees, though a small group, were among the elite, collaborators at the highest level, with a yearning to keep the peace for their own sake. 

Jesus was up to telling people the truth about God:“Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive."

At book group yesterday, we discussed Kate Braestrup’s book, “Here If You Need Me.” Braestrup lives in Lincolnville, Maine, and is both a Unitarian Universalist minister and a chaplain with the Maine Warden Service. This passage from her book reminded me of the gospel lesson:

A boy got very drunk, walked into a pond, fell over, and drowned. The Universalist part of my denominational appellation stands for “universal salvation”: everybody goes to heaven. So I can assert with the confidence of my tradition that the drowned boy got there, too.

His girlfriend, distraught, asked me what would happen if, as she devoutly hoped, they would one day be reunited. “I mean, I could live to be eighty,” she said. “He will still be seventeen. How will we get back together in heaven? How will he know who I am?” 

How, indeed? 

We all wonder this at times if we allow our thoughts to ramble on the subject. Will God’s soul ecology demand we be recycled, as the reincarnationists believe? It has a certain appeal, the opportunity to live a better, fuller, improved life because of the things we learned in the last one, except that it’s really about being held back from ultimate peace because you need to learn a few more things.

Maybe instead, we will achieve some rest. My mother wanted that more than she could say. No picture of heaven pleased her until she dreamed up her own, saying, “Even if I am simply one soul floating quietly in a pool of souls that will be all right with me.” A quiet person, she did not desire the sort of heavenly extended family reunion the more outgoing among us might prefer, complete with a circle of comfortable chairs somewhere over there for the knitters to work on garments that always cooperate, with a gauge that is never wrong.

Yes, that might be my heaven.

When people start to wondering, the most commonly expressed thought is this: will I see him again? Will she be waiting for me?

We even ask it about our pets, in comforting picture books like the one the choir so kindly gave to me. 

“Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive."

Jesus turns the question back around on the Sadducees, quoting to them from one of the five books of scripture they hold valid, Exodus:

“And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Luke 20:37, NRSV)

It’s a word of hope given to us, that the people of God are resurrected in spirit, and it suggests the saints are gathered, somewhere, somehow, beyond the limitations and strictures and ties of our human lives.

I had one of those grandmothers who pined for her husband. In her 80s, lying in a hospital bed after a fall, she greeted my mother and me by saying, “I want to be with Galli.” It had been thirty years since his death from emphysema. Widowed in her fifties, my devastated and determined grandmother went to spiritualists to try to contact her lost love. When that did not work, she returned to her childhood faith, with passion and determination. She had confidence in God, and she found comfort in the belief she would see Galli again.

Somehow, despite all her reading of scripture and marking of verses, she didn’t get the message in this passage. 

We are not the same after this life.

Jesus was nothing if not honest with us. He assures us of a resurrection, but not of a repetition of our earthly lives. For some of us that’s a loss. But in many ways, and for many people, it may be a relief, too. His own life, as it came to a human end, contained disappointment and betrayal, being let down by his friends and cruelly killed by his enemies. 

Jesus understood the pain of being human. Jesus understood the pain of dying.

“Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive."

We haven’t had a loss together yet, you and I, a death in the church family, but I know you had a terribly hard year before I came, saying goodbye to many people you loved. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to picture what we don’t know and can’t see, because doing that testifies to our faith in an important truth. The people we love are not really lost to us. God is God not of the dead. To God all of them are alive. Their spirits, the spirits of all our saints, live on in God’s presence and in our hearts. Amen. 


6 thoughts on “Not of the Dead”

  1. My questions of the past five years – of my many losses, still waiting for answers. Thank you for the thoughts to ponder.

  2. Wonderful message. It always amazes me that we can all look at the same text and come up with such different messages. God is so creative.

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